Mesa soldier: 'The heroes are the ones who ... saved my life.' - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

Mesa soldier: 'The heroes are the ones who ... saved my life.'

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Posted: Friday, December 31, 2010 8:30 am | Updated: 9:11 pm, Thu Jan 12, 2012.

Eric Griego enlisted in the Army and did his job honorably, so his supply of strength and bravery was obvious.

However, his resolve was stretched to the limit when he was wounded in Afghanistan on Oct. 19. Pvt. Griego returned to his Mesa home on Thursday having passed that test, his success evident in every breath he took.

The 22-year-old can once again look into his daughter's eyes, happy to be alive after a long-odds survival from a shooting that necessitated the removal of his right lung and the top lobe of his left.

"I hear a lot that people call me a hero," Griego said via telephone from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he recuperated for six weeks. "I was just doing a job, what I was trained to do. In my eyes, the heroes are the ones who came to my aid and saved my life."

By all logic, Griego should have died alongside the Afghanistan road that his unit was charged with securing, or at least in the hospital. Lung injuries as severe as his are typically fatal.

But Griego attributes his survival to three fast-acting fellow soldiers in the field, a team of doctors and surgeons and a portable heart-lung machine that was used for the first time in a combat evacuation.

A long road of rehabilitation awaits - down to about 135 pounds, Griego cannot walk long distances without gasping for air - but doctors have told him that, for now, he can function with three-fourths of one lung. He will be put on a transplant list, but only as an emergency precaution.

He has a future. He has life.

"It's been a miracle so many times over," said his mother, Brenda. "It's been amazing."

Griego - of Apache Troop, First Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division - was on duty near the city of Siah Choy when Taliban fighters opened fire. Shot in the chest, bleeding profusely and his left arm and shoulder numb, Griego returned fire until his magazine ran out, fell to the ground and shouted that he had been hit.

At his side were Sgt. Matt Casting and Sgt. Mark Reed, who kept Griego alert and prevented him from hemorrhaging. Spc. Allan Hughes, the unit's medic, arrived moments later and used a long needle to relieve air pressure in Griego's lung cavity, allowing him to breathe.

As gunfire continued to spray around them, the three soldiers comforted Griego by talking about his planned trip to Disneyland with daughter Rylie, 4.

"The whole time, I was thinking to be brave and get through it," Griego said. "In the movies, if someone spits out blood, they usually die, right? And I had a lot of blood coming out of my mouth. I got a lot of blood transfusions, 20 units, which they tell me is quite a bit."

The bullet that hit Griego tore through his chest cavity, hit his spine - barely missing the cord - and exited from his neck.

Numerous staples and clamps could not patch all of the holes in Griego's right lung, so surgeons opted to remove it. Ventilators could not get the reduced left lung functioning well enough for him to be safely transported to a hospital in Germany, so Lt. Col. Sandra Wanek, a trauma surgeon, suggested using a suitcase-sized unit called an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation - or ECMO - machine.

"Without that machine, there's no way I would have survived," Griego said.

The ECMO connects to vessels in the groin and jugular vein, oxygenating the blood through an artificial membrane.

"This is the most exciting thing I've ever done in the Army," Wanek told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. "It's the most desperate feeling in the world to have someone who is young and whose wounds are survivable and know that I have nothing I can do for him. But now I do. And it's small enough; it's transportable; and it's safe."

The machine, developed at the German hospital Griego stayed in until Nov. 12, is a portable version of technology commonly used for open-heart surgery. Its readings were constantly watched closely by Griego's parents, Brenda and Peter, as they sat at their son's bedside.

"Slowly, it would give us hope," Brenda Griego said. "It gave us something positive to look at. The ECMO machine was oxygenating his blood. Every day, the numbers on the machine went down. That meant his lung was working a little bit more, and the machine was working a little bit less."

Among those who visited Griego's room: First Lady Michelle Obama, who presented him with a presidential medallion called the Commander's Coin during a Veterans' Day visit with U.S. troops in Germany.

"She was very nice," Griego said. "When she walked in, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, she's tall.' She had a big smile on her face and hugged my entire family. I was still a little out of it, but when I saw the pictures we took with her, she literally crawled into my hospital bed while I had IVs and tubes connected to me. But she didn't care. I was told she stayed longer in my room than anyone else's."

In Mesa, Griego will continue rehabilitation at Banner Baywood Medical Center and will determine his future after a lengthy evaluation by a military medical board. He would like to return to the Army, but if there is no job suitable for him, he plans to attend college.

And the Disneyland trip with Rylie is still on, likely in late January.

"I hope not to think about (the shooting) much," Griego said. "When I'm home, my daughter comes first, then my family and friends. I have a lot of people to thank for their support."

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